Penelope Fitzgerald is Jane Austen's nearest heir, but with a continental, metaphysical touchby AS Byatt / August 20, 2000 / Leave a comment
i knew penelope fitzgerald-never well-for a long time. We taught together at Westminster Tutors in the 1960s, where the ferocious Miss Freeston created an atmosphere of eccentric precision. (She was later to appear in At Freddie’s, observed with judgment and affection.) My first real memory of Penelope was the mixture of irritation and curiosity with which she greeted my assertion that you couldn’t talk about “the protagonists” of a novel. “Why?” said Penelope, sharply. My mother told me, I said. She learned at Cambridge that in Greek tragedy there was one protagonist, and one deuteragonist. Of course, said Penelope. Exactness pleased her. She reminded me from time to time of my mother’s remark. In due course she taught my eldest daughter. She was a splendid teacher. She told me with the same half-irritation that I didn’t seem to know how clever my daughter was. Since I had said nothing about that, and would have felt it wrong to boast, I felt harshly judged. But I nodded meekly. She was mild but formidable.
It was perhaps because I knew her as a teacher that I took as long as I did to see how very good her novels were. She was always modest about them, and their reception. Her unusual annoyance at the critics for not seeing that Human Voices turned on a poem by Heine was a teacherly flash of irritation at their obtuseness. She hoped I would “write something” so that people would understand. But at that stage I myself didn’t understand. I thought she was a good, comic, English domestic novelist, who had read Muriel Spark well. It was only when I read the late, remote novels about other times and places that I came to hear the moral ferocity, the elegance of mind, the bleakness and generosity of her vision. It was not actually good for her reputation to have won the Booker Prize for Offshore, although I now see, as I didn’t then, why it was right that the judges should give it to her. People in England still saw her then as a good biographer-of Burne-Jones, of the eccentric Charlotte Mew-who happened to write novels. Her masterpiece in that line is her composite biography of her father and his brothers, The Knox Brothers. It is a portrait of English intelligence, religion, eccentricity, pig-headedness and wisdom, written with directness and wit. She was, like her family, a religious person. Hermione Lee, interviewing her for New Writing, pressed her on her feminism, her political beliefs. Penelope corrected her. She wanted to emphasise the religious.
What follows is an edited version of a piece I wrote for Threepenny Review, in San Francisco. When I wrote it, many of her novels were out of print in the US. The success of The Blue Flower changed that. She won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1997, the first non-American to do so. I spoke to a journalist who came over to interview her for the New York Times. He said she was the greatest living British novelist. I replied I thought she perhaps was. The last time I saw her before she died, I said I hoped that she was writing a new one. She considered me with the fierce, irritated, questing look with which she had queried my remark about protagonists. “How do you start a novel?” she said, as though I had made some impossible requirement of her. “I don’t know,” she said. She always claimed to find writing difficult. She admitted only to liking “having written.” We are fortunate that she wrote as much as she did. Here is the piece:
penelope fitzgerald wrote discreet, brief, perfect tales. Her first novel was published in 1977, when she was already over 60. She won the Booker Prize in 1979 for Offshore, a comedy with edge, about a family barely surviving on a houseboat on the Thames. Her early novels are English-kindly studies of the endless absurdity of human behaviour, seen with an unwavering moral gaze. She was interested in traditional forms-the plotted detective story, the supernatural tale. In 1986, with Innocence, she began to write about other countries-Italy, Russia, Germany-and other centuries. This looking outwards from English manners was in the air at the time, part of the flowering of historically and geographically various fiction in Britain.
Fitzgerald’s later novels are quite extraordinarily good. They made me reread the earlier ones with closer attention, and conclude that Fitzgerald was Jane Austen’s nearest heir, for precision and invention. But she had other qualities, qualities I think of as European and metaphysical. She had what Henry James called “the imagination of disaster.” She could make a reader helpless with private laughter. She is also one of those writers whose sentences, however brief, are recognisable as hers and no one else’s, although they are classically elegant and unfussy.
Consider the description of the BBC in the second world war, in Human Voices. “Broadcasting House was in fact dedicated to the strangest project of the war, or of any war, that is, telling the truth… without prompting, the BBC had decided that truth was more important than consolation, and in the long run would be more effective.” The novel combines deadpan English comedy and surreal farce, from the death in the studio of a French general whose post-Dunkirk message turns out to be a plea to surrender, to the recording, for a programme called “Lest we forget our Englishry” of “600 bands of creaking.”
Sam, the Director of Recorded Programmes, is one of Fitzgerald’s fatally dangerous narrow-minded innocents, a technical perfectionist who flirts indifferently with a seraglio of assistants. His obsession is part of what makes up the awkwardly powerful survival of the BBC. He is loved by an assistant (with perfect pitch) from Birmingham, called Annie Asra. Fitzgerald named this person, also single-minded, after a poem, Der Asra, by Heine. The Asra are a tribe of slaves “welche sterben, wenn sie lieben” (who die when they love). German Romantic orientalism is an odd component of so very English a novel, and Fitzgerald’s surprise that no one noticed the reference was perhaps innocently unrealistic. But it was a pointer to un-English preoccupations.
Innocence opens with a chilling account of a 16th-century Italian noble family (the Ridolfis), who were midgets. The cossetted midget daughter has a dwarf companion who suddenly grows to normal height. To the midget mistress this is a monstrous misfortune. After much kind reflection, she decides it would be best to put out the other girl’s eyes and cut off her legs at the knees, so that she would “never know the increasing difference between her and the rest of the world.”
This tale resonates through the novel which follows the fortunes of a modern Ridolfi, Chiara, in the 1950s (of normal height) who falls in love at first sight (at the opera) with a handsome doctor, of southern socialist stock, with whom she has nothing in common except love, and a single-mindedness reminiscent of Annie Asra. Both Chiara and her Salvatore are dangerous to themselves and others in their innocence; both are also hopeful and loveable. What is remarkable about this tale (224 paperback pages) is the completeness of its Italianness-political, religious, moral and physical. There is a monsignor, an old comrade, a farming cousin who finds words unnecessary; there are political and family intrigues, and an Italian mix of passion and heartlessness. There is a brief scene in which the child, Salvatore, is taken to see the dying Gramsci in hospital, and finds, not socialist inspiration, but a medical vocation in the horror of his decay. Innocence is a mosaic where every tiny piece is part of an intrigue and a world: olives and lemons, clothes and manners. Horrible tragedy is possible, and farce is omnipresent, both belied by the light, decorous storytelling. Every time I reread it, I find another flicker of connection between the 16th-century tale and the modern one.
Human Voices (with its echo of Prufrock) and Innocence are perfect titles for their books. So is The Beginning of Spring, which is set in Moscow, in 1913. Its hero is Frank Reid, owner and manager of Reid’s, a British printing firm set up in the 1870s. At the beginning of the novel Frank’s wife, Nellie, has suddenly left with his three children, subsequently abandoning them at a railway station. They are, like all Fitzgerald’s child characters, intelligent and resourceful, aware of the deficiencies of their elders. Frank is also resourceful; the novel is an account of his attempts to construct a life and avoid the kindnesses of the expatriate community and his emotional Russian acquaintances.
The novel is as Russian as Innocence is Italian; the muddles are Russian muddles, the suspicions and warmth and vaguenesses are Russian. As with Innocence, what look like comic set-pieces of misunderstanding turn out to be integral parts of the plot. Again there is a dangerous innocent, Selwyn Crane, an English devotee of Tolstoy’s asceticism, an absurd vegetarian, author of the poems, Birch Tree Thoughts, which provide both an unexpected part of the intrigue and a moment of pure hilarity. For a writer who selected every phrase with as clear an ear as a poet, Fitzgerald had a remarkably satisfying way with plot and narrative, too. There are beginnings, middles and ends, and they are not disappointing; indeed they are both shocking and satisfactory.
In The Beginning of Spring we know that Fitzgerald, by whatever mysterious means, knows abundantly more about the world her people move in than she tells us, although it is a lost and distant one. She did so much research that she could always select the telling detail, the exemplary smell, sound, or object. It is under-researched novels that smell of the lamp, and don’t ring true. Fitzgerald’s grasp on the larger world was assured too. The revolution is coming, with the spring, in this book. But the people are plunged in the purposeful private and commercial muddle of their single, not exemplary, lives.
The Gate of Angels (1990) is also set in that unknowing time just before the first world war. It concerns the life of Fred Fairly, a Cambridge physicist, son of a country vicar, who has lost his religious faith. He means to work with his hero, Rutherford, on atomic research, but ends up working with a Professor Flowerdew, who is sceptical about working with “unobservables,” saying that this will lead to randomness, laws acting in “a profoundly disorderly way,” wild ideas such as “anti-matter which is supposed to be there but isn’t” and ultimately “chaos.” It is a religious novel about the well-being of the individual soul in a world of material probabilities.
Fitzgerald’s earlier novels had a surreal quality to their comedy. Like the surrealists, Fitzgerald asserts the reality of the individual, the improbable, the singleton. Her invisible world is peopled by angels, poltergeists (see The Bookshop) and random particles. Fred falls in love with Daisy. He meets her by a most improbable coincidence, or material collision, when they are both, quite separately, struck by an out-of-control farm-cart while riding bicycles across the fen. They wake to find themselves naked, side by side, in the attic of a strange Cambridge couple. Daisy, although unmarried, is wearing a wedding ring (for reasons circuitously revealed) so they are thought to be husband and wife. The Cambridge of fusty bachelors, principled eccentrics, early suffragists and ghost stories ? la MR James, is as meticulously put together as Florence or Moscow. Outrageous coincidence and improbability are used as formal devices to suggest that the world of the typical and the probable may not be all. The finale is brilliant.
Her next novel, The Blue Flower, is an improbable masterpiece about German Romanticism. The title comes from a fairytale about a man who is obsessed with the desire to find a mysterious blue flower. The tale is by Fritz, or Friedrich von Hardenberg, known as Novalis, a pupil of Fichte, who died at the age of 28. He became a Romantic myth, and had complicated and interesting ideas about the nature of language (and philosophy and mathematics) as a system of signs, and about the relations of body and spirit. His father found him employment as a salt mine inspector, and he thought about the life and language of minerals. The novel recreates, in brief, fleeting scenes, the life of two or three interconnecting families in 18th-century Germany, Jena and rural Saxony.
The story of Hardenberg’s life is simple and startling. He fell in love, at first sight, with a 12-year-old girl, Sophie von Kuhn, to whom he became engaged. She died of tuberculosis at the age of 15. Hardenberg created a myth round her memory, turning her into a figure of Wisdom, a Sancta Sophia. He, and his brothers and sisters, also died in their twenties of tuberculosis.
The world of The Blue Flower is created out of the solid, detailed life of the letters and diaries of his family (and Sophie’s) and is shot through with Hardenberg’s vision and intelligence. Early in the novel Fitzgerald quotes a letter from Friedrich von Schlegel, in which he describes “a young man, from whom everything may be expected, and he explained himself to me at once with fire-with indescribably much fire… On the first evening he told me that the golden age would return, and that there was nothing evil in the world. I don’t know if he is still of the same opinion.” As a boy Fritz was expelled from his Moravian school because he would not answer correctly in the children’s catechism. “A child of not quite ten years old, he insists that the body is not flesh, but the same stuff as the soul.” He goes to live with the stolid Just family, while working in the salt mines, and is rebuked on his arrival for telling their niece, Karoline, that she is beautiful. He is another of Fitzgerald’s innocents, and scatters hurt with his failure to notice feelings or problems. There are bitter and beautiful scenes when he tells Karoline that he has fallen in love with Sophie, or when he refuses brusquely the one gift his mother is able to offer him.
Hardenberg’s musings on the nature of rock salt, time and space, take us back to Fred Fairly, the physicist, brooding on the nature of random particles. In Ian Hacking’s brilliant account of the development of our ideas of statistical probability, The Taming of Chance, he writes of Prussian mining statistics and how the idea of probability fed into the great 19th-century novels, such as Zola’s, where human beings lived out exemplary fates moved by social forces. Hacking also writes of the Romantic desire to recreate the idea of pure chance, about which he quotes Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, blessing “the heaven accident, the heaven innocence, the heaven chance, the heaven prankishness.” He introduces Nietzsche’s homage to randomness (which is a form of necessity) by quoting Novalis who wrote in 1797 that chance manifests the miraculous. The individual “is individualised by one single chance event alone, that is, his birth.”
It is this understanding-what might be called a religious understanding of the individual-which gives shape to the novels. Chance makes farce and chance makes disaster; in between these we construct our own identities as best we may. The Hardenbergs, and Sophie, are statistics of the devastating power of tuberculosis. Fitzgerald’s art insists that they are also all individuals, body and soul.